A Dream Fulfilled
The Viking Star journey around the Empires of the Mediterranean was incredible, filled with amazing sights, sounds, tastes and smells; but, it had a very sad conclusion at Ataturk airport. Leaving my taxi, the driver pointed out the hundreds of homeless Syrian refugee children lining up at every vehicle, begging for a handout, a small gift that might help to provide a drink of water or a morsel of food. A little boy walked up to me, looked up at me, and begged with his sad eyes. I reached into my pocket and took out a roll of dollars and l put them in his outstretched hand, telling him with my only Arabic words, adhhab bisalam, to go in peace. I walked on with tears in my eyes, wishing I could do more. I remembered the story of the cherished mother figure in the ancient Turkish rug design. How her dream was that all the earths' people should one day behold the same sun in unity of spirit. Hundreds of years later and we are still struggling to shed our egotistical views and do as all the prophets of every faith have asked: love one another and spread peace, acceptance, and love to all our brothers and sisters.
That wasn't the only time I felt strong emotions in Istanbul.
I have had a dream since my college art history courses. To journey to Istanbul to see Hagia Sophia. This place was the most captivating and awe inspiring work of art I ever studied. And I studied almost all the ancient cultures up through the early modern period, thousands of works of art. So when I discovered the ship I was on was only in port for a few hours, and the only free hours were at a time when the museum was closed, I changed the plan. I WAS NOT going to stand in front of this dream and not go inside!
I changed my flight and booked a charming Turkish hotel, The Kybele, just a 2 minute walk from the museum. Early in the morning, I ventured to the front of the Cathedral/Mosque/Museum to see an astoundingly long line and realized I should have purchased a ticket in advance. No worries. And actually, I am so glad I didn't. A very nice young man approached me and suggested I hire him as a private, professional guide to go in front of the line and have a much better tour! I had been approached by many men selling "handmade" rugs and souvenirs just on the short walk between my hotel and the museum entrance. So, to say I was skeptical, is quite an understatement!
But, having just experienced some very unsatisfying, fast-paced tours over the past ten days, I decided to try it! I hired Muhammet to give me a professional tour of Hagia Sophia. Great decision! He did as promised, and sped me past the front of the line. He took me around the outside and explained many parts of the history, the foundations and the excavations before taking me inside. He even sang the Muslim call to prayer for me.
As we chatted, I told him the story of the necessity of my "change of plans" to be here today, so he knew it was an important journey. But when he took me into the first hallway and I had my first glimpse into the nave through the Royal doors, he was not prepared for my response. I just broke down crying. He looked at me with a look of surprise and very comfortingly said, "I didn't know you were going to cry!" I wept, "Neither did I!" Then he hugged and comforted me for a very long time. I felt a Muslim and a Christian crossed cultural lines. Two souls connected and became lifelong friends.
His name is Muhammet Isin and is a very professional, academically trained and knowledgable tour guide. He has a vast, impressive knowledge of history, architecture, customs, religion and even local arts for shopping tours. You can contact him directly, instead of hoping that by chance you'll meet up in front of the mosque as he is Turkey's top tour guide and most likely booked for the day. He has top credentials in many other cities and sites as well. (He'll even make a personal introduction to Gli the resident cat of Hagia Sophia.)
Muhammet Isin email contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org
My journey became something very different than what I expected. I thought I would be observing and enjoying the art and architecture. In reality, it had become a Pilgrimage. I waited over 30 years, and it was a dream fulfilled way beyond my imagination. I know my life has been changed. Seeing the symbols of Muslim and Christian cultures created hundreds of years ago, side by side, in this holy place gave me hope that maybe one day that cherished mother in the rug would have her wish. And I had felt intensely that something else very special had taken place. I reconnected with the essential person that was me.